It’s not an easy path to tread, being a gender apostate. As a feminist who thinks that female biology is real, that female socialization matters, but also that it is possible for male people to transition into the role of woman and therefore to live as women, I’m used to being unpopular. I’ve made my peace with the fact I’m simultaneously denounced both as a vicious exclusionary transphobe, and as a cowardly liberal quisling in thrall to men. So I’m not particularly concerned to defend myself against these claims. But I do think it’s important to explain, for those who may be in any doubt, why there is nothing inconsistent about this position I’ve arrived at, and why I believe there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about gender critical feminists and transsexual women working together towards the goal of gender abolition.
I believe that gender is a socially constructed, externally imposed hierarchy that operates to prescribe and proscribe certain modes of behaviour, appearance and comportment for individuals of both sexes. I believe it limits human freedom and constrains our potential. It teaches girls that they must be weak, passive, decorative and submissive. It teaches boys that they must strong, active, dominant and aggressive. It imposes heavy sanctions on individuals for non-compliance. Given that it is a hierarchy that values maleness over femaleness, gender punishes those born female more severely than those born male, and punishes them whether they comply or not, since compliance with femininity just is to enact submission and subordination. But gender is a system that oppresses everybody, and males who cannot conform to norms of masculinity will be punished too.
As a gender critical feminist, the ideal world I envisage is one in which social norms governing behaviour, appearance and comportment are entirely decoupled from potential reproductive function. In an ideal world, regardless of what set of genitals they happen to possess, people would wear whatever clothes they want to wear, perform whatever roles and occupations they are inclined to perform, have romantic and sexual relationships with whomever they choose, without facing social censure in the form of discrimination, harassment or violence. It may be that in such a world, our language would shift to reflect this radically different value system; perhaps it would evolve new genderless pronouns to refer to all persons, instead of segregating them so clearly by reproductive function as it currently does. (I say nothing about whether such a world is feasible, because I don’t know the answer to this. It might not feasible; it might even be impossible. It doesn’t follow from that that it’s not desirable.)
In an ideal world, being female or male would have as little bearing on how one is expected to dress and behave, or on what one is expected to excel at and achieve, as other biological factors such as blood group or dominant-handedness currently have.
But this is not that ideal world.
We are saturated by gender in this non-ideal world. It is everywhere, so much so that most of us cannot see it: it’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. Our entire social order is organised around the idea that different forms of behaviour and appearance are appropriate for male and female people. This idea has shaped our history and our politics. It is reflected in our language and embodied in our culture. It is the reason why gender non-conforming behaviour is still so heavily sanctioned: why homosexuality is still widely stigmatised; why rejection of feminine beauty norms comes at such a high price; why assertive, powerful women are socially shunned and ostracised.
As a feminist, I want to abolish gender. I desire a world without these social norms tying behaviour and personality to reproductive function.
But as a woman; as a human; as a person made of flesh and blood, with a lifetime of inculcation into this value system, and all the history of pain and trauma and emotional baggage that the average person accumulates on the way to adulthood; as me, as Rebecca, I want to live in this world in which I find myself without unnecessary struggle or discomfort. I don’t want to spend every waking moment in a battle, engaged in warfare against this monolithic structure under which I live and over which I had no say or control. I want to work with others to chip away at that structure, sure. I want to devote as much of my time and energy to the task of dismantling that structure as it is reasonable to ask of any individual. But I don’t want to sacrifice my entire wellbeing and my mental health and my only chance of happiness and survival in the attempt. I’ve got just this one life to live, and even if I stopped doing anything else for the rest it; even if I devoted my every waking thought and action to trying to tear down the gender monolith, for the rest of my days…it would still barely scratch the surface, still barely leave the tiniest chink in that structure, let alone shake its millennia-old foundations.
What to do then, as the gender abolitionist with just one life to live?
This is a question without a straightforward answer, because the answer lies in the murky grounds of compromise and personal reflection. The answer will require a great deal of wrestling with one’s own experiences and baggage to determine how much more weight one can reasonably be expected to carry. I don’t think there’s a universal answer to the question of how much rebellion is required and how much complicity is permitted in the face of oppressive structures that you alone cannot change. That’s going to depend on who you are, where you’ve come from and what you’ve come through, and how relatively thick or thin those things have left your skin. But one thing I am certain of is this: no individual is required to sacrifice themselves, their happiness, their peace of mind and their only chance of flourishing, all for the sake of some minuscule, intangible, and possibly negligible advance on the path towards our ideal world. Nobody is required to martyr themselves or surrender their wellbeing at the altar of principles or ideology, either to demonstrate their commitment to those principles, or to achieve some nebulous incremental gain in the path towards the perfect world.
The question of how we ought to behave in an ideal world is a very different one from the question of how we ought to behave before we get there, and it isn’t hypocritical or inconsistent to answer those questions differently. Every individual has a right to do what they need to do to survive and to flourish in this non-ideal world, even if some of those things they need to do setback our journey towards our ideal.
I don’t know what causes sex dysphoria in those who experience it. I don’t know whether it is a genetic or biological or socio-psychological condition. I do know that there are many individuals, both male and female, who find the constraints that gender imposes upon them painful and oppressive. And I know that for some people, this pain becomes especially acute and intense, so that they cannot tolerably live in the gender role associated with their biological sex. And some of these people come to the conclusion that they can live more comfortably, can more easily flourish and be happy, if they adopt the gender norms associated with the other biological sex.
This may be a non-ideal solution to a problem of a non-ideal world. Perhaps, in our genderless ideal world, nobody would experience this dysphoria, because these two rigid and diametrically opposed roles would not exist. Perhaps in this world, people would be free to pick and choose from the actions and forms of behaviour we currently associate with masculinity and femininity, without having to pick a team; without having to decide which of the two boxes, the pink one or the blue one, is less constrictive.
But this is not that ideal world.
In this non-ideal world, there are pink boxes and blue boxes, and we are all required to squash ourselves into one of them, or face heavy penalties. As a person with a female body who has been effectively socialized as female, I am able to live reasonably happily and comfortably in the role of woman. This is not to say it never brings me pain or distress; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be a feminist, and I wouldn’t want to abolish gender. But while I want to abolish masculinity and femininity, I’m also pretty sure that if I’ve got to choose between the pink box and the blue one, I will do better in the pink one now. I don’t much like femininity, but I know I couldn’t conform to masculinity. I definitely can’t live as a man, but I can live and survive as a woman.
And so I do what I have to do to survive. I perform femininity in all sorts of ways. I wear makeup pretty much most days, and I dress in the ways that our culture tells women they ought to dress, and while I rail against the norms that impel women to be docile and submissive, I frequently fall back into those norms on occasions when being assertive and dominant would bring costs I can’t afford to bear. You can call me a hypocrite who fails to live her principles, if you think sincerity and conviction requires nothing less than perfect compliance with those principles at all times. But I think that’s an overly purist and zealous interpretation of political conviction. I have to live in this world as best I can, trying to work out how much of a political load I can bear before my back breaks.
So as a frequently gender-conforming woman, I am complicit in the perpetuation of gender in order to survive the brutality of a rigidly gendered world. And crucially, I don’t see this as being very different from the complicity of transsexual people. The only real difference is that they are trying to move from one colour box to another, while I am relatively content to stay put in mine. Since none of us alone can tear down the boxes, I reckon I’m better off with the one I’ve been in since birth. As gender non-conforming males, trans women feel they’d be better off in the opposite one from the one in which they started. Perhaps they are shoring up the boxes, making them a tiny bit harder to tear down; but then so am I, every time I wear mascara, or shave under my arms, or passively acquiesce when a man interrupts me for the sake of a quiet life. I want a gender free world, but every day I perform femininity to survive in a world with gender. So too do trans women. We are all damaged by the same structure, and we would all benefit from that structure being abolished.
Furthermore, the gender abolitionist trans women that I am friends with do not deny who they are. They make no claims to femaleness. They readily and openly acknowledge that they have male biology, that they were socialised as male, and that there are important differences between their experience of gender, and that of those born and raised female. What they say is that while they strive for a world without gender, in this non-ideal world they can live more comfortably and cope better with their dysphoria by performing femininity than they can performing masculinity. We have the same goals. And it would be oddly inconsistent and perverse of me to insist that I want to abolish gender – to insist that I want to decouple norms of behaviour and appearance from potential reproductive function – and then to complain when people who freely acknowledge that they are male adopt traditionally feminine names, clothing and modes of behaviour. They aren’t ‘appropriating’ womanhood, since this is not a vision of womanhood that belongs to any of us, or that any of us is invested in keeping. Since femininity is submission and subordination, I’m not about to get possessive or proprietorial about who performs it.
In an ideal world, nobody would perform it.
But this is not an ideal world.